Lucy was not deterred; she was determined to get up on Thunder. She fetched the set of wooden steps that reached to the hay manger and set them beside the horse. Then she climbed the steps, wobbled precariously at the top and clambered onto the horse's broad back. Thunder's only reaction was to shift his weight a little. He was a steady horse and it seemed to Lucy as though he hardly noticed her. She was right. Thunder had barely registered her presence; the horse had someone else on his mind - Simon.

"Drat!" An exclamation came from somewhere near the floor.

Lucy recognized the voice. "Stanley!" she said, looking down from her great height. "Where are you?"

"Here." The voice sounded rather aggrieved. "I think I've trodden in something." A rather portly brown rat was peering at his foot. "It's not very nice if you don't wear shoes," he complained.

Lucy felt excited - a reply from Simon, and so soon. But Stanley was fully occupied inspecting his foot with an expression of disgust. Lucy knew that the sooner he got the horse poo off his foot, the sooner she would hear Simon's reply to her message.

"Here, have my hanky," she said. A small, square of purple dotted with pink spots and edged in green lace floated down from Thunder. The rat caught the scrap of cloth, gave it a bemused look, and then scrubbed his foot with it.

"Thanks," he said. With a surprisingly agile leap, Stanley hopped up the steps and jumped onto Thunder, landing just in front of Lucy. He presented her with the handkerchief.

"Mmm, thank you, Stanley," said Lucy, taking it carefully between finger and thumb. "Now, please, tell me the message."

With one hand holding on to Thunder's coarse black mane for support, Stanley stood up and put on his official message delivering voice.

"No message received. Recipient marked as gone away."

"Gone away? What do you mean, gone away?"

"Gone away. As in, not present to receive message."

"Well, he was probably out doing something. Didn't you wait? I paid extra for that, Stanley, you know I did." Lucy sounded annoyed.

Stanley was peeved. "I waited as agreed," he said. "And then, seeing as it was you, I went to the trouble of asking around, which was when I discovered that there was no point waiting any longer. I only just got the last barge home, actually."

"What do you mean, no point waiting any longer?" asked Lucy.

"Simon Heap is not expected to return, so his domestics told me."

"Domestics - what domestics? Simon doesn't have any cleaners," Lucy said snappily.

"Domestics as in the rats that live in his room."

"Simon doesn't have rats in his room," said Lucy, slightly affronted.

Stanley chuckled. "Of course he has rats. Everyone has rats. He has - or had - six families under his floor. But not anymore. They left when something rather nasty turned up and took him away. It was sheer luck I bumped into them. They were looking for another place on the quayside but it's not easy; very desirable properties there are already stuffed to the brim with rats, you wouldn't believe how many - "

"Something nasty took him away?" Lucy was aghast. "Stanley, whatever do you mean?"

The rat shrugged. "I don't know. Look, I must go home and see what my brood are doing. I've been out all day. Goodness knows what state the place will be in." Stanley went to jump down but Lucy grabbed hold of his tail. Stanley looked shocked. "Don't do that. It's extremely bad manners."

"I don't care," Lucy told him. "You're not going until you've told me exactly what you heard about Simon."

Stanley was saved from answering by a sudden gust of wind, which blew the stable door wide open.

Thunder raised his head and sniffed the air. He pawed the ground restlessly and Lucy began to feel slightly unsafe - there was something Magykal about Thunder and he was a little scary. Thunder had been Simon's faithful horse through his master's Darkest moments and there was an indissoluble connection between them. And now Thunder Knew his master was near. And where his master was, Thunder must be.

And so Thunder went. He threw his head back, whinnied and was out the stable door, his hooves slipping on the snowy cobbles as he cantered out into the night. Paying Lucy no more attention than if she had been a gnat on his back, the horse galloped off to the place where he Knew his master awaited him.

The clattering of Thunder's hooves was the only sound to disturb the warren of deserted streets that led from the North Gate gatehouse to Wizard Way - apart from some extremely piercing screams.

"Stop! Stop, you stupid horse!"

Chapter 32 Day of Recognition

After Spit Fyre had taken off from the Dragon Field, Septimus had flown him away from the Palace and out above the river. They had wheeled to the right just before the jagged crag of Raven's rock and were now flying above the Moat. Septimus craned over Spit Fyre's wide, muscled neck and stared down at the Castle below on his right-hand side. He gasped. It looked as though someone had dropped a large pool of ink onto the Palace and Wizard Way. The dark irregular shape was, even as he watched, moving outward as yet more candles and torches were extinguished.

Jenna was sitting in her usual Navigator space, in the dip between the dragon's shoulders, just behind Septimus.

"It's so dark down there!" she shouted above the noise of Spit Fyre's wings.

Septimus searched for a sign of Marcia's Safety Curtain. He thought that maybe, just possibly, he could see a faint purple glimmer deep within the blackness, but he could not be sure. The only thing he could be sure of was that the Safety Curtain had failed.

At least, Septimus noted with relief, Marcia knew what was happening. The spreading blackness had halted at the wall surrounding the Wizard Tower courtyard and from its boundaries he saw the Living SafeShield begin to grow upward into the night sky, encasing the entire tower in a cone of brilliant indigo and purple lights, the colors of which showed, to Septimus's knowledgeable eye, that Marcia was in residence. It was a magnificent sight and made him feel proud to be part of the Wizard Tower - although once again unhappy to be outside the Magyk.

They flew slowly along the Moat, keeping the Castle Walls on their right. The Darke Domaine was spreading fast and he knew that nowhere in the Castle would be safe for long. The one beacon of light - the Wizard Tower and his home - was now closed to him and to Jenna. They had a simple choice: leave the Castle and flee to safety or find somewhere within the Castle where they could hide out and keep the Darke at bay.

Jenna tapped him on the shoulder. "Sep, what are you doing? We have to get to the Palace. We have to get Mum out of there!"

They had now reached the other end of the Moat. The One Way Bridge was to their left and in front of them, on the other side of the river, lights ablaze, was the ramshackle shape of the Grateful Turbot Tavern. Septimus contemplated landing there - the lights looked so welcoming - but he needed time to think. He wheeled Spit Fyre around in a tight turn and began to retrace their path.

Septimus flew Spit Fyre slowly so that he could see how far - and how fast - the Darke Domaine was spreading. They flew over the drawbridge, which was raised as it always was at night. The Darkenesse had not yet reached there, although the Gringes' rather mean single candle in the upstairs window of the gatehouse did not make it easy to tell. But there were other signs that all was still well; Septimus could still see the thin covering of snow on the road reflecting the light from candles in houses set back from the gatehouse. He also saw, as he dipped down for a closer look, a rectangle of lamplight thrown onto the road from an open door at the back of the gatehouse.

Septimus took Spit Fyre down low along the Moat. He was relieved to see that candles were still burning in the windows of the houses that backed onto the Castle walls, as were the lamps in Jannit Maarten's boatyard and on the newly arrived late-night Port barge, which was just docking. But farther down, the Manuscriptorium boathouse was Darke. Not merely unlit but so dark as to be almost invisible. If Septimus had not known it was there, he would have thought it was an empty space. And yet, strangely, the houses on either side of it were still lit.

What Septimus could not see was that the Darke Domaine had followed Merrin to the Manuscriptorium and had spread through the entire premises, which extended down to the Moat. Merrin intended to make the Manuscriptorium his temporary headquarters until he got into the Wizard Tower. But being in charge was not as much fun as he had expected now that Jillie Djinn was no longer there to intimidate. The empty old place felt rather creepy, especially with the Seal on the Hermetic Chamber glowing eerily through the Darke, behind which - unknown to Merrin - Beetle was frantically searching for the Suspension Charm, which was now languishing in the garbage bin out in the yard along with the rest of the contents of the siege drawer.

Angie Sage Books | Fantasy Books | Septimus Heap Series Books